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Barak and Sharon Defend Their Positions in Knesset

Appeals for national unity continue to be sounded here, but judging from the opening session of the Knesset, Israeli leaders are not prepared to take the steps required to achieve it.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared before the Knesset on Monday having only a minority of legislators behind him.

Monday’s session came amid continued unrest, which claimed the lives of two Israelis in the Jerusalem area.

But he was in no imminent danger of facing a vote of no confidence in his government when the legislators returned from a three-month recess.

Barak, whose government lost its parliamentary majority when three parties walked out during the summer to protest July’s Camp David summit, got some breathing space from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, which promised him a “safety net” as long as the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continues.

But Shas members, who hold 17 seats in the 120-member Knesset, said they would only back Barak if he abandons his “secular revolution” reform program and keeps the secular Meretz and Shinui parties out of his government.

While Barak called on Israelis to stand “shoulder to shoulder,” notably absent from his address Monday was any overt reference to a unity government.

This was taken as a sign of the deadlock in the efforts to forge such a government with opposition leader Ariel Sharon. The politically weakened Barak staunchly defended his election pledge to “turn over every stone” in pursuit of peace, which he said culminated in the Camp David summit.

But at the same time, he said there were limits to that pursuit.

“Over the past 16 months, and especially at Camp David, we were prepared to discuss far-reaching ideas raised by the president of the U.S., on condition the other side would consider it a basis for discussion.

“We understood peace, if achieved, would carry a painful and heartbreaking price, but we never agreed to peace at any price, a peace of capitulation or surrender to the demands of the other side,” Barak said. “The Palestinians are the ones who rejected our extended hand.”

Barak went on to say that Israel remains committed to the understandings brokered by President Clinton to try to reach a cease-fire during a summit at Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, in mid-October.

If the Palestinians implement the understandings, and if Clinton summons the sides to Washington, “our security and political responsibility obliges us to go,” Barak told legislators.

Barak’s acting foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was slated to visit Washington later this week, when he was expected to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to discuss the ongoing violence that has all but killed the peace process.

The hawkish Sharon has demanded that Barak disavow the proposals discussed at Camp David as a condition for creating an emergency unity government.

During his address to the Knesset, Sharon devoted almost all of his remarks to the need for a unity government, but not one based on Barak’s policies.

“If you had not chosen the path you did, you would not have led us into this trap,” Sharon said. “I support an emergency national unity government. But I am not ready to support the division of Jerusalem, giving up the Jordan Valley and the return of [Palestinian] refugees to Israel.

“We must unite around a realistic plan that can really restore quiet, bring security to the people of Israel, and down the line, the peace we all want,” he said.

Sharon said the urgency of the moment requires immediate action, and that the opposition is ready to join the government on one condition: that the sides agree what Israel’s response would be to a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state.

Sharon was heckled by Hadash legislator Tamar Gozansky, who shouted “you don’t want unity, you want a veto” over Barak’s policies.

Meanwhile, a security guard was killed and another one seriously wounded when they were shot at close range inside a branch of the National Insurance Institute in eastern Jerusalem.

In a separate incident, Palestinian police handed over the body of an Israeli found in an Arab area on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Israeli police said Monday the body was bound and had multiple stab wounds.

They said the victim, who was in his 30s, was believed to a resident of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood.

Israeli security officials have warned Israeli Jews to stay away from the Palestinian self-rule areas.

The Knesset reopened as the violence in the West Bank and Gaza entered its second month with a fury that shows no signs of abating.

During his address, Barak vowed to “do everything to defend our citizens and soldiers, and hurt those who want us dead.”

Israeli Arab legislators repeatedly interrupted the premier’s speech, angry that Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg had turned down their request to have the session begin with a minute of silence for 13 Arab Israelis killed by police in recent rioting.

One Shas legislator asked why there were Arabs were serving in the Israeli parliament at all. Burg opened the session by reading a statement expressing condolences for all who had lost their lives in the violence.

For his part, Barak condemned all violence by Jews against Arabs and Arabs against Jews. His speech came one day after Arafat proclaimed that the “blessed” intifada, or Palestinian uprising, would continue until a “Palestinian child plants a Palestinian flag” on Jerusalem.

Barak warned Arafat on Monday that the window of opportunity for peace is closing and that he will get nowhere with violence. “Negotiations are conducted around the table,” said Barak. “Not in the streets. Not with gunfire and rocks. There will be no prize for violence.”

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